Tuesday, July 27, 2021

On this day: 2006

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Fourteen years ago today (19 November) Marcus Grönholm secured his sixth win of the 2006 FIA World Rally Championship season.

The Finn’s achievement was, however, overshadowed by something bigger. Much bigger.

Grönholm’s Rally New Zealand victory, with Ford team-mate Mikko Hirvonen backing him up in second, sealed the Blue Oval’s first manufacturers’ world title since 1979.

Ford’s 1979 success came with the venerable Escort RS1800, and was a double celebration with superstar Swede Björn Waldegård taking the maiden drivers’ world crown in the same season.

Ford then made the decision to bow out of rallying, deciding to step back to focus development on a new rally weapon: the RS1700T. Once Audi delivered the Quattro, Ford quickly understood rear-wheel drive wasn’t going to cut it in Group B and the RS1700T was shelved in favour of the stunning RS200.

Unfortunately for Ford, its supercar arrived too late to make a significant impact on the mid-80s. And when Group B was replaced by the more production car-focused Group A regulations, the company was caught between two Sierras.

The XR4x4 had total traction, but a rather breathless naturally aspirated V6 engine, while the RS Cosworth had a race-focused turbocharged engine. But only rear-wheel drive.

That didn’t stop Ford from trying. A double podium on the 1987 RAC Rally with Stig Blomqvist and Jimmy McRae second and third was a memorable effort against the might of Lancia’s all-wheel drive Delta.

Didier Auriol’s 1988 Corsica win was the big-winged Sierra’s only success at the highest level.

The introduction of the Sierra RS Cosworth 4×4 (known as the Sapphire) was a step in the right direction and came close to delivering a dream win for François Delecour on the 1991 Rallye Monte-Carlo, only for rear suspension failure to step in.

But it was the Escort RS Cosworth which arrived in 1993 that had real potential.

It was a genuine homologation special, with the road cars coming complete with a bigger turbo, water injection and dramatic aerodynamics aimed solely at improving airflow under the bonnet and generating downforce on the stages.

While it won multiple rounds of the series, the world title eluded Ford’s fastest Group A car.

The Escort WRC bridged the gap from Group A to World Rally Cars and then came the Focus. Designed and built by Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport firm, the Focus has been Ford’s most successful rally car by some margin, scoring 44 WRC wins.

In 2001, Colin McRae came within an ace of winning the drivers’ championship, but it would be another five years before Wilson and Ford could celebrate the end of a 17-year wait.

The end of that wait came 14 years ago today in Hamilton with a Finnish Ford one-two, and that Rally New Zealand was something of a processional event for the Focus RS 06 pair. Sébastien Loeb, Ford’s Citroën-driving nemesis, was still absent, having broken his right arm falling off his bike earlier in the season.

Not that Ford let that interrupt the flow of champagne. The Blue Oval was back on top of the world.


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